GOSPEL: Luke 2:1–20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
“In a world dominated by the authority of older men, a world not unlike our own, Jesus will come through the faith, and strength, and body of a young woman. In a world dominated by the Roman Empire and Jerusalem, Jesus will come from a family from Nazareth. A nowhere town, unmentioned in all of Hebrew scripture.”
In a world dominated by wealth, power, and violence, the savior of the world comes as a helpless infant, soft spot and all. This is the ageless story, replayed over and over anew, as God continues to break into our world with grace and mercy, in unexpected and fragile ways.
It isn’t a grand story. Or a flashy one. It’s a story like when time stands still as you watch a baby sleep. Or hold the hand of some who is dying. It’s not the sort of headline news which grips our nation with fear, but the word of a friend whose voice centers you as she gives her updates and listens intently as you share your news.
It’s not a bright light. It’s a glimpse of a streetlight in the gutter.
The only flashy parts of this story happen to a handful of shepherds and their sheep. The important star in the sky is only recognized by a handful of foreign intellectuals, who quickly investigate and then do their best to keep the good news from corruption.
The church will never again, God help us, be the dominant force in Western Culture; with power and trappings elevating it to a belief system that tolerates corruption for the sake of survival. But the church will continue to shine a light into those corners where darkness seems to thrive and meet the face of the Christ child reflected back at us. Yes, flashy things will happen, miracles will be witnessed, but the real story is happening quietly, at least as quiet as childbirth could be.
And a new detail of this story came to me this year and I can’t shake the ramifications for us. Our translation of this story tells us that Mary wrapped her newborn and placed him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn. Like they got to Bethlehem, and forgot to make reservations, and everything was booked, so they had to sleep in a parking lot. Certainly, there were inns for travelers in first century Palestine, but Mary and Joseph were going to his hometown. Where his family lived for however many generations.
They certainly couldn’t stay at an inn with random strangers. They would stay at Aunt So and So’s house. And in this story from Luke’s gospel. The word that it translated Inn is actually the same word used for the Upper Room. Not the hotel, lodge, or business that houses poor travelers, like in the story of the Good Samaritan. The word means the gathering place to receive guests in a small home at that time; not the main living area of the house – but the spare room.
And with all the cousins already in town, there’s no room in the Upper Room for Mary to deliver a baby. So, she likely sought privacy and some space in the corner of the home where they would bring the animals in out of the cold, for protection. Such spaces had depressions in the low stone walls, to place hay and feed for the animals.
If this is correct, Mary and Joseph were far from lonely, with only the animals to keep them company till the shepherds arrived. They were surrounded by family. Probably too much family, as everyone was in town.
The son of God was born at home, in the usual manner, into a cramped house of visiting family. If ever there was need for grace and mercy and God’s love to appear, it might be in a cramped house full of extended family. So yes, the birth happened in a less than ideal way, traveling and all, perhaps with a bit of gossip about who the father was. But I believe the family made room for them the best they could.
Perhaps that’s our lesson for tonight. And perhaps that’s where you’ll find us. Making room for Jesus the best we can in less-than-ideal circumstances in our world. No loud programming or ad campaigns, no parades or productions. But finding God and sharing a word of hope from the divine messengers, nonetheless.
Each part of our worship tonight is pregnant with meaning. Each offering and hymn, each prayer and posture, lifts up this truth. The presence of Christ in the sacraments – and the power of the holy spirit moving through us. We stand as a witness to the hopes and fears of all the years – and where they meet. In this story.
In the margins, the corners, the basements, and the spare rooms. Quietly conversing with those who have lost hope. Feeding the hungry. Soothing the anxious. Listening to the overwhelmed and reaching out a hand. Making room for someone who needs a safe place. Doing the best we can in the midst of injustice and suffering and sadness, because while that may be the current reality, God’s power is not less. And in fact, is how God’s power works and has always worked.
God moves through the world by turning the notions of “power” and “blessing” upside down while lifting up the voiceless and the oppressed, reminding us that “being ‘blessed’ means seeing God in the world and trusting that God is at work even in things we can’t see, understand, or imagine.” And the best most unexpected part is, God does it for you. For us.
a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior,
who is the Messiah, the Lord
The Body of Christ, given for you.
The Blood of Christ, shed for you.
Peace be with you.
This good news of great joy for all people is for you.